Monday, December 29, 2008

New Year's Resolutions don't work...but the Tao knows How!

A New Year is upon us and I hope everyone is having a fantastic holiday season. This is the time of year we tend to sit back and reflect upon the past year and begin to set goals for next year. For a majority of people health is a major focal point and memberships in fitness centers and clubs increase along with the purchase of fitness equipment and diet books. The proverbial New Year's Resolutions are set and motivation is high for a new you.

To care about your health is a good thing and to have dreams of being healthier is definitely a worthwhile goal, however, did you know that only a small percentage of New Year's Resolutions are ever kept? I am sure you are aware of this, both from the news and probably personal experience.

Health and physical fitness experts tell us to start slow and set our long range goal and break it down into easily accomplished short term goals so we can feel successful. We are to write our goals down, say them to ourselves daily and visualize success. Again, good ideas, but very few people even succeed with this.

But why?

It is called the Law of Reversed Effect. An example of this is insomnia. The harder you try to sleep the more awake you stay. This law kicks in when you try too hard to accomplish a goal with your willpower and rational thought processes. Setting goals, counting calories, having a positive mental attitude, etc., are all good things, but it engages the part of your subconscious mind that actually causes resistance to any type of long term change. Eventually your willpower will weaken because willpower is a good short distance runner, but sucks at long distance.

To accomplish health, whether it is to lose weight, reduce blood pressure or manage pain, it is imperative to go with the flow of life. This flow of life is what the Taoists called The Tao. It means The Way and is likened to a huge river flowing constantly. You have the decision to either fight your way upstream hoping to accomplish your goals with hard work, willpower and determination...or just have faith in the Tao...and flow with the river downstream. As you let go and trust the Tao and just flow with life a funny thing happens. Health happens. Leanness happens. Peace of mind happens. Pain diminishes.

The Tao (or you can use the word Creative Source, Emptiness, God, Atman) is your source of health, happiness and inner peace. It is alway present. We just need to allow its energy to flow through us and accord ourselves to it. It is quite easy. Over the years I have discovered the things that came to me easy were the aspirations I had... but never set an actual goal. I had an intention of what I liked and then just went about my life and low and behold, my intentions became reality. When I set a long range goal and muscled my way to try and accomplish it I usually gave up in frustration.

For instance, for years I had wanted to obtain a PhD, but family life, career and cost kept me from achieving this. My goal to get a PhD was a strong drive in me, even at times, playing with my business card and putting a PhD behind my name to see what it would look like or feel like. I had at one time was going to enter graduate school when I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska and had spoken with an advisor, did all the paperwork, set my sights on my doctorate, but life events and finances didn't allow me to go. Plus, I had gotten a pretty good job at a hospital and was doing fine financially to take care of my family, but not graduate school too.

Well, I put my goal aside and just kept it an idle daydream and guess what? The Internet was born...and certified, quality, long-distance education became available. I could keep working and pursue my dream. I had saved my money and also my kids had grown older and I had more time to dedicate to studying. And it was easy. No goal setting. No sweating it out. I just allowed the Tao to take me to where I needed to be when the time was right for the PhD to come about.

This was also the road I took to Black Belt. I always knew I would be one (to digress a bit. I never even saw myself as a white my mind I was always a Black Belt). I never set a goal for a certain date or even my colored belt promotions. I just went to the dojo and practiced. The belts came and so did the Black Belt. Yes, I worked hard, but I didn't strive to accomplish a goal. I just went with the flow of where I was and had faith.

So, when you are thinking of the changes you would like to make for 2009 and you find yourself setting goals and how to accomplish them. Go ahead full bore...and when you get exhausted and give up...remember The Tao knows how...just keep your aspirations in mind and let go of how to do it or when it will happen. Align yourself with the feelings of contentment (zazen is good for this). When you feel discontent or frustrated you are trying too hard. Just let go and be in the moment. Trust the Tao of Now...It knows How. (Hey, a good mantra)

I have written enough today to cause sufficient confusion, but will probably talk about this again in the near future. If you have questions or comments please write.

Be Well,
Shinzen Sensei

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Shu, Ha, Ri and Ku

Traditionally, when a student is taught about the stages of development a martial artist goes through you will hear of Shu, Ha and Ri. These I will cover today along with a fourth stage not often mentioned or taught openly...and that is our friend Emptiness, or Ku. Ku, as you are aware by now, can be interchanged for Kara of Karate.

So, what are these stages and what relevance do they have for you as a martial artist? Shu, Ha and Ri are classically taught as a means to guide the student towards mastery. It is helpful for the teacher to be aware of what stage the student appears to be at. Each student advances through each stage as they practice and proceed at their own pace. You can't hurry the pace or try to get to the higher levels by practicing harder. They simply require Gyoji...daily practice with a dose of faith.

Also, dependent upon the teacher you have, you will get a slightly different interpretation of them, so please keep this in mind. Here is my interpretation of Shu, Ha and Ri....with Ku.

Shu (learning form): This is the stage at which the student learns the form of their art. For instance, in Zen Goshindo our principle Kata is Sanchin. During Shu, the student learns the physical aspects of the form. This includes the footwork, handwork, breathwork and mindwork. The training is focused on the physical and 'yang' aspects of self-defense and conditioning of the body. At Shu, the bunkai, or application of the kata is kept quite literal and true to form.

Ha (breaking form): At the second stage of training, the student learns to break from form and can see how a particular movement once described as a 'block' can now represent a myriad of possibilities. A block is now a punch, a turn is now a throw or a bow is now a wrist lock. Here the basics are mastered and can be applied in a variety of situations. Creativity with form begins to sprout as well as get a 'sense' of the inner movement of the form.

Ri (transcending form): Moving into the third stage of development the student begins to transcend form. The student is now released from the outer form and feels the inner essence of the form. No longer confined by the outer form the student is now moved by the internal movement of the kata or form. For instance, an internal movement of Sanchin will have me 'coil' and move in a manner or shape that does not even look like the traditional outer physical form of Sanchin...but it is just doesn't 'look' like Sanchin.

So, in a nutshell, these are the three developmental stages of a martial artist. Do a web search and learn other interpretations. Regardless of what interpretation makes more sense to you, Shu, Ha and Ri only come about through practice...then more practice. Reading about them and having an intellectual understanding about them is not really knowing them.

Ku (emptiness): This last stage is typically considered the highest of mastery and usually kept as a 'secret' or 'hidden' teaching until Ri was mastered. At Ku there is no trace of form or doer of form. The Martial Artist dances in total harmony and accordance with the presenting moment. No ego. No observer. Nothing observed. No form. No doer of form. Nothing to get rid of and nothing to attain. With nothing to release or attain, the Martial Artist is released from all suffering and fears, even the fear of death itself. You could say, at Ku, the Martial Artist is now invincible.

Thank You for reading.

Be Well,

Shinzen Sensei
(note I am now using my Dharma name of friend Dr. and Reverend Yozan Mosig, Zen Priest and Master of Zen Shuri-te Karate inspired me to begin using it more often)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Brain Food

As you practice Zazen it is important to give your brain some food to chew on. Just remember the food is to be chewed, swallowed, assimilated and then let go of. So it is with all that I write. Nonin, during his Dharma talks (Buddhist sermons), used to always remind us that it is not so much important that we understand all that he says, just that we hear it, let it settle into us and then let it go.

As you are aware, the term Karate is based on the Buddhist Heart Sutra which talks about 'Emptiness is Form, Form is Emptiness' ...and I have discussed this previously. For a quick reminder, Emptiness is the source of pure potential from which Form arises. Form arises from Emptiness and returns to Emptiness...and is always Emptiness, except it is now form.

This is witnessed in your breathing. How do you know someone is alive? They are breathing, but more specifically, they have an inhale, right? Without an inhale there is no life. The proverbial 'Breath of Life' is your inhale. This is when you take Form. Form comes not only in your physical body, but it is the state of mind you have along with all the stirring of emotions you feel. During Zazen, you are to be aware of this Form, as it is....then...

...let it go with the exhale. This is your return to Emptiness. Notice what happens to your body, mind and emotions when you exhale completely and just let go. It is usually very relaxed, is it not? Learning to be your exhale and letting go into relief is very important. For one it is very relaxing and why many bodyworkers and therapists teach a cleansing breath with a big exhale. For another and more important reason it connects you to Raw Pure Potential...Emptiness.

As you connect with your exhale you can feel the 'letting go' as well as the potential arising of the next inhale. My question for you is...'What Form are you going to take with your next inhale?' You have a choice as to the Form you assume. Are you going to use your inhale for compassion or hatred? Goodwill or vengeance? Tranquility or Anxiety? Your Intention sets your Form.

Each breath you take is a chance to 'reincarnate'. It is a chance to make changes. Just like your Empty Hand can shape-shift (reincarnate) and make a punch, spear hand or claw, your Empty Form can shape-shift (reincarnate) into Tranquility, Calmness, Peace and Goodwill. It can shape into good health, better relations, or even a deeper understanding of the human condition.

Thanks for reading,
Sensei Dave

Friday, December 12, 2008

Some Meditation Pointers

To practice Zazen, or seated zen meditation, is a cornerstone of Zen Goshindo Karate. Today's post will give you a couple of meditative practices to do. But before I give them to you, a few pointers are necessary.

First, be consistent with your practice of zazen. It is best done first thing in the morning and approximately the same time. Standard sitting meditation time is 40 minutes, but five minutes or twenty minutes is okay too, as long as you do it.

Second. Make sure you are sitting in a proper position at the right height. If you have not had formal zazen instruction, just search the web for how to sit in lotus, half-lotus or burmese posture. If you have back or knee problems, use a chair.

Third. Be gentle with yourself. It is normal for the mind to want to wander away from your focus point. Just be aware of the wandering and return to your focus.

Fourth. Don't try to achieve any special state of mind. Just be where you are. Change will happen...don't force it.

So, after you have set yourself down and connected to your breath you can practice counting your exhales from one to ten. As your counting, if you lose track of your count, return back to one and start again. When you reach ten, then start over again. This type of meditation is good if your mind is feeling very scattered or if you are just beginning meditation.

Another focus when sitting zen is simply to be aware of your breath coming in through your nostrils or going into your belly. Watch it come in and watch it go out. Keep the mind here. When it wanders, just gently return it to breath. This is the most basic of zen practices.

To guide you along, you can also just focus on your exhales. This gives your mind a little time to catch in some wandering on the inhale...just come back when you exhale. For an added adventure, especially if you want to connect with the energy that breaths you, is to be aware of the energy just before you exhale. Simply be aware of it...over and over. This is my preference.

If you feel frustrated doing zazen or find it useless it is because you are trying to use it to get something special. Life as it is right now is the special. It may be comfortable or uncomfortable, but the way of Zen is simply to be aware of it. The practice of Zazen is not an escape from reality, but a direct encounter with it. At times times times times tranquil. Reality is ever changing, as are you.

Practice is the only way. Recall Zen Master Bankei from the last post...'outside of the mind, there is no art of combat'. Your own mind is the battleground, and the number one rule when going into battle is to pay attention!

Take Care,
Sensei Dave

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Martial Lesson from Zen Master Bankei

Bankei was a Zen Master in the early 1600's. As a son of Ronin, he was also fiercely independent and challenged the overly ceremonial Zen of his time. Bankei was well known for simply telling people to trust in their innate Unborn Buddha Mind.

Today's post I am going to put in a response to a letter he received from a Martial Artist regarding the art of combat. Some of this will make total sense to you...other stuff you might be scratching your head and wondering what he is really saying. This is the stuff you are to explore.

Here's Bankei:

"In performing a movement, if you act with no-mind, the action will spring forth of itself. When your ki changes your physical form changes along with it. When you are carried away by force, that is relying on "self." To have ulterior thoughts is not in accordance with the natural.

When you act upon deliberation, you are tied to thought. The opponent can then tell the direction of your ki. If you try to steady yourself by deliberate effort, you ki becomes diffuse, and you may grow careless. When you act deliberately, your intuitive response is blocked; and if your intuitive response is blocked, how can the mirror mind appear?

When without thinking and without acting deliberately, you manifest the Unborn (my insert: Unborn can mean Emptiness) you won't have any fixed form. When you are without fixed form, no opponent will exist for you in the whole land. Not holding on to anything, there is no "you" and no "enemy." Whatever comes, you just respond, with no traces left behind.

Heaven and earth are vast, but outside mind there is nothing to seek. Become deluded, however, and instead this mind becomes your opponent. Apart from mind, there is no art of combat."

In Gassho,

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sanchin Basics

Attached is a picture of Master Uechi performing Sanchin Kata. This is the basic Sanchin Stance. What I want to point out today is the angle of the arms and absorbing a punch. Notice his arms are 45 degrees out from the body, elbows in and shoulders down. The only difference between how Master Uechi looks and what we do at the Broken Bokken is the hands. We practice with the palms turned out rather than in.

The purpose of palms turned out is that this becomes your self-defense posture that gives the body language of 'I am not here to fight'...but you are read to defend yourself. Also with the palms turned out the forearms are stronger for absorption of a punch without your own hands hitting you in the face.

In order to absorb a punch or elbow coming in a good 'root' is also valuable. Notice Master Uechi's back and legs. They are aligned physiologically for a great stable root. He would be very difficult to knock over.

Absorbing a punch to the head or torso with this stance is not a passive response. Your body and breath must be in align with your mind in an 'attack mode'. Absorbing a punch is not 'blocking' a punch. It is actively engaging it to disrupt the striker's purpose and restore harmony. Blocking and then responding is too slow. Absorbing a punch is part of a continuum of self-defense movement that must be experienced and practiced repetitively to get the feel of how to do it.

For an exercise at home...just stand in Sanchin and practice breathing (use your imagination) chi into your fingertips and into the bones of your fingers, right down to the marrow. Eventually breath chi into the bones of fingers, hands, wrists and arms. Just feel the chi move into the marrow and watch. Overtime your arms, hands and fingers will become very strong.

With practice you will be able to move chi all throughout your skeletal system.

Take Care...
Sensei Dave